BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — When Roger Demers came home from working the graveyard shift at Metal Hydrides in the 1940s and ’50s, he made sure to change out of his work clothes on the porch before stepping inside his Salem house.
“It wasn’t because my mother was a neat freak,” said Mary Lennon, Demers’ daughter. “I think he was worried about what was on his clothes.”
Demers worked for nine years as a chemical mixer at Metal Hydrides, a company in Beverly that was part of the Manhattan Project, the government’s secret plan to produce the world’s first atomic bomb.
Workers like Demers, who died of brain and lung cancer in 1991, had no idea they were involved in the making of such an historic weapon. And they had little knowledge of the dangers of the chemicals and radiation to which they were exposed.
Now, decades later, a decision by the federal government should make it easier for those former employees or their survivors to be compensated for the devastating health consequences that many of the workers suffered.
In October, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius recommended to Congress that Metal Hydrides employees of the 1940s who were later diagnosed with cancer be granted a special status that could clear the way for government compensation of up to $150,000.
The measure went into effect on Nov. 11, opening the door for workers or their family members to apply for compensation under the new “special exposure cohort” status.
That classification means former employees will no longer have to prove that the cancer was caused by working at Metal Hydrides. Instead, they will only have to document their cancer diagnosis and the fact that they worked at Metal Hydrides between Nov. 1, 1942, and Dec. 31, 1948. If the worker has died, family members can apply.
The decision is an acknowledgment by the federal government that people worked under dangerous conditions at the Beverly plant, but it is unrealistic to expect them to present scientific evidence of the cause-and-effect of their disease when there is little, if any, such evidence available.
“I’m happy for this ruling,” said Lennon, who lives in Roslindale. “I hope it affects somebody, whether it’s us or someone else.”
Lennon and her sister, Kathy Demers of Salem, applied for compensation last year but were denied by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Labor, which decides compensation claims, said the chances that Roger Demers’ cancer was caused by working at Metal Hydrides was “44.62 percent,” according to Lennon. The threshold for qualification is 50 percent.
The government uses a computer software program to make such calculations, based on an employee’s medical records and radiation-monitoring records from the time of the employee’s work. If not enough information is available, the government makes “reasonable scientific assumptions” about the amount of radiation to which the employee might have been subjected.
But the government acknowledges that in some cases there is not enough evidence to accurately calculate the odds that the work environment from decades ago caused the employee’s cancer. In those cases, the government can characterize certain workers as a “special exposure cohort,” meaning they do not have to prove the correlation.
In the case of Metal Hydrides, a survivor of a former worker petitioned the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year for that special status. The agency assigned one of its research health scientists, Samuel Glover, to examine whether Metal Hydrides workers from the 1940s merited the classification.
In August, Glover filed a report concluding that Metal Hydrides did not conduct enough monitoring of the conditions at the Beverly site for former workers to scientifically prove a correlation between their cancer diagnosis and the conditions at the site.
It is not clear how many former Metal Hydrides employees who fit the special exposure cohort status are still alive. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 20 former Metal Hydrides employees or their survivors have submitted claims for compensation. Five have been paid a combined $750,000.
The payments are available under a law passed by Congress in 2000 to compensate workers who were exposed to radiation at certain Department of Energy facilities, including the one in Beverly. The law allows the government to grant lump-sum payments of up to $150,000 and payment of medical expenses to former workers who have been diagnosed with one of 22 specified cancers.
In his report, Glover said the working conditions in Beverly were obviously unsafe. Metal Hydrides converted uranium oxide into uranium metal powder that was used in the first reactor that helped to produce the atomic bomb, and also melted and recast scrap uranium metal. Those processes, which include the use of black ore, could have exposed workers to contamination from radium, radon and uranium.
Glover said an estimated 107 people worked in the refinery, which produced about 350 pounds of metal per day on a three-shift schedule. Sixteen people worked in the scrap-casting operation, which produced more than 3,000 pounds of material daily.
Glover told the agency’s Advisory Board of Radiation and Worker Health that workers routinely scooped uranium powder into tins using their hands. According to a transcript of the meeting, Glover said material was thrown outside and allowed to burn, while metal left outside in leaching liquid would spontaneously ignite every few weeks.
A study of the facility in 1943 discovered that the soil contained up to 79 percent uranium oxide. “‘Contaminated’ is probably a mild word,” Glover told the advisory board. In 1944, 120,000 pounds of soil were removed from the site and shipped to the DuPont Chemical Co. to recover the uranium in the soil.
The Metal Hydrides site, also known as Ventron after the company that later operated there, is located on Congress Street near the Beverly-Salem bridge in the Goat Hill neighborhood. The company’s three buildings were demolished between 1948 and 1950. The land was slated to be developed for condominiums but has been vacant for years.
Kathy Demers, who was born after her father worked at Metal Hydrides, said she hopes the decision clears the way for her and her sister to receive compensation. She considered the government’s earlier rejection of their claim “a slap in the face.”
“It was just really frustrating with all that my father went through,” Demers said. “It’s just unfortunate that he’s not alive to be compensated himself.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.